Saturday, February 18, 2017

Lipstick Vogue: The Lipstick Killer, The Bloody Spur (1953) and While the City Sleeps (1956)

"Turn off the television and tell me all about it."
"Don't you like this program?"
She made a face.  "It started out all right, but I was beginning to get tired of it.  They're all the same, these mysteries."

....Lamin...had sent a reporter to cover the burial of Judith Felton, a young lady who, only recently, been murdered.  It was a good story, especially with the killer as yet uncaught: it had captured the imagination of newspaper readers not only in New York but out along the line, for in addition to such standardized ingredients as a knife, a rape and a nude body, the killer had added a grotesque touch. He had taken the dead girl's lipstick, and with it scrawled a plea for help on the bathroom wall.

One murder's bad.  Two are wonderful.  Two murders can sell papers all day long.

Apparently he gave her the business after she was already dead."
Walter Kyne shuddered. "Imagine," he said.

"I have," John Day Griffith said.

"This guy, see, he's a pervert.  Both times, you know what he did?"  Something told him the presence of a woman in the room, even his wife, called for moderation of expression.  He lowered his voice. "He moved his bowels on the floor."

"Two babes were killed and now a little girl's been kidnapped and they found an axe and a lot of blood in the basement and maybe she's been murdered too."

Across the newsroom, another copy boy was handing Joe Levine...a copy of the rival INS bulletin on the same subject.
Levine read it, exclaimed in a guttural voice, and strode into Lamin's office.  "Arn," he said, "INS has a leg missing, too."
"What have we got, just two arms?"
"That's all."
"Damn that Collier," Lamin said.  "I always said he took dope."
"Maybe INS is wrong," Levine said.
"Yes," Lamin said, "and maybe I'll be working for INS in the morning."

"If you became suddenly very sure of something," Jon Day Griffith said, "and there was one other thing you could do in another direction to make you even more sure, but that something else was--well, say it was unethical--what would you do?"
Healey looked at him.  "It would depend on how much I wanted whatever it was I wanted."
Griffith grinned.  "You're a moralistic son of a bitch."
"Anybody who's moralistic around here," Healey said, "is crazy."

"She's sleeping around....My God, Friday night Mobley, last night Meedy, tonight who knows?"

"That's what I like to hear," Mobley said.  "Get tough with me.  Call me names."
"I think you have a fetish or two of your own," Nancy said.
"Agreed," Mobley said.  "Would you care for details?"

"Weren't there any honest men working for Kyne?"
"Damn few," Mobley said.  "Certainly nobody that mattered."
"Were you one of them?"
"Maybe in a way."  He kissed her hair. "But I was getting polluted."

When you worked for Kyne, a certain amount of plotting was necessary.

                              --All quotations from The Bloody Spur (1953), by Charles Einstein

A series of three brutal murders of females, two women and a young child, struck Chicago in 1945-46.  All of them were linked to one of the century's most notorious alleged serial murderers, the so-called "lipstick killer."

William Heirens (1928-2012)
aka the "lipstick killer" (?)
On June 5, 1945, Josephine Ross was discovered dead, savagely stabbed, in her Chicago apartment. Seven months later, on December 10, Frances Brown was discovered dead, savagely stabbed, in her Chicago apartment.  This time a message was left scrawled in lipstick on a wall in Brown's apartment:

For heavens
sake catch me
Before I kill more
I cannot control myself

The killer of Frances Brown from this point on became known, not surprisingly, as the "Lipstick Killer."

On January 7, 1946, six-year-old Suzanne Degnan was discovered missing from her home; her dismembered body parts soon were discovered in several nearby storm drains. Chicago's finest arrested a 65-year-old janitor, Hector Verbergh, in the building where Degnan lived and subjected him, Verbergh alleged, to severe beatings with the aim of extracting a confession from him. 

Despite the beatings and other abuse at the hands of the police, Verbergh never confessed to any crime and he was released. He and his wife later sued the Chicago Police Department, and they were awarded in damages a total of nearly $250, 000 (in modern dollars), more than they had originally requested.

On June 26, 1946, 17-year-old William Heirens was arrested for attempted burglary. (This was not his first burglary.) Heirens later asserted that he too was beaten while in police custody. Additionally sodium pentothal (so-called "truth serum") was administered to him without his or his parents' consent. Those were the days!

Police began to believe they might have their "man" in the lipstick killer case.  The press had a field day, publishing photos of Heirens as a Jekyll and Hyde killer and stories about a supposed Heirens confession to all three of the above murders, a confession which in fact had never been made.

Eventually, however, Heirens did plead guilty to the killings, urged on by his lawyers, who thought he was guilty and wanted to save him from the death penalty.  Heirens retracted his confession within days, but to no avail: he was sentenced to three consecutive life terms.

Hereins, who died in 2012, maintained his innocence to his death, but he was never released from jail (where he proved a model prisoner). Many people have long argued that the case against him, in which his "confession" was supplemented by disputed handwriting and fingerprint evidence, is unpersuasive. Certainly police conduct in the case left a great deal to to be desired, as it often did in those days when states allowed their law enforcement apparatus such a free hand in criminal investigations.

Whatever the truth about Heirens' guilt or innocence, the "lipstick killer" case unquestionably served as an inspiration for Charles Einstein's fascinating 1953 paperback original crime novel, The Bloody Spur, filmed three years later with an all-star cast by director Fritz Lang as While the City Sleeps.

Einstein accepts Heirens guilt in the novel, unambiguously portraying his murderer character, Robert Manners, based on Heirens, as a criminal lunatic and a sexual psychopath: He has "mama issues"; is maniacally obsessed with the Bible; steals women's underwear, which he keeps in a locked suitcase under his bed; defecates at the crime scenes; and performs necrophilia on one of his murder victims. (Thankfully, we are only told about these last two things obliquely, and at second hand.)

1956 reprint of the novel
using the film title
Einstein handles these chapters concerning the killer well, but what is really interesting about The Bloody Spur is the author's portrayal of the ruthless world of the news media.  Essentially Einstein used the lipstick killer case as his occasion to study the Machiavellian machinations of a great syndicated newspaper chain.

The novel opens with twin burials at a cemetery: that of Judith Felton, victim of the latest brutal murder, and that of Cyrus McCrady, executive director of the Kyne publishing empire, consisting of

a chain of newspapers only slightly smaller than Scripps-Howard and Hearst, bulwarked by KPS (Kyne Press Service, a national newswire network), KWF (Kyne World Features, a feature story syndicate), and Kynpix (a national picture service).

Walter Kyne, successor to his father, must now choose a successor to the great McCrady, upon whom he relied to run his empire for him. The candidates for the succession to executive power at Kyne are Arnold Lamin, editor-in-chief of the Kyne news-wire service, John Day Griffith, editor of the Sentinel, the key Kyne paper in New York, and advisory editor to the nine other papers in the chain; Harry Kritzer, chief of the Kyne picture service; and Mark Loving, head of features.

the original paperback edition
As the "Lipstick Killer" case snowballs into a morbid city sensation, Kyne conceives the idea of handing the big job at Kyne to the man who cracks the murder case. His executives get the message and act accordingly (i.e., they feel the pricks of Shakespeare's "Bloody Spur")--often in ethically dubious ways.

This is a suspense novel and a crime novel, but the suspense lies more in the battle for supremacy at Kyne, and the most interesting crimes detailed are the ethical ones committed by white-collared pillars of society. I'm reminded of some of the sardonic corporate crime novels from this period by the English crime writers Andrew Garve and Michael Gilbert.

Women play a notable role in the novel as well. Besides the unfortunate women in the killer's life, there are Nancy Liggett, Lamin's secretary and girlfriend of Edward Mobley, the star reporter on the Sentinel, and Mildred Donner, the women's features editor who is free with her amors, as well as the executive's assorted wives, one of whom vigorously pursues sexual agendas of her own.

The author adheres to a realistic, "warts-and-all" presentation of his characters--so much so, indeed, that a common criticism of the book is the classic complaint that the characters aren't "nice."  I don't entirely agree with that assessment--Nancy and Ed provide a moral center for the novel, though even that relationship is "nuanced," shall we say--but the novel is, to be sure, quite a cynical and satirical one.  It's a long way away from the Fifties family sitcom world of Father Knows Best and its ilk!

John Barrymore, Jr. as the lipstick killer in While the City Sleeps
You'd never suspect this guy, would you?

The 1956 Fritz Lang film version of The Bloody Spur, generically titled While the City Sleeps (the title seemingly taking issue with a brilliant earlier film, City That Never Sleeps), has its fans, but was somewhat disappointing to me.  Admittedly, the cast of the book is huge (I haven't even mentioned some of the key characters from the book), but I think the film treatment loses a lot of the novel's fascinating detail and sheer potency.

John Barrymore, Jr.'s performance as the killer seems more a thing of older, expressionist film--Mmm, what Might Lang have had in Mind?  In an unsubtle alteration concerning the killer's Freudian motivations, the lipstick message in the film is a terse and blunt "Ask mother."  Another change, a huge one, is that the child murder is deleted, cutting a lot of the horror and satirical force from the book.

Vincent Price is a good choice for Kyne--and it was nice to see him briefly reunited in antagonism, after the great film Laura, with Dana Andrews--but he is reduced to a feckless playboy, a crude simplification of the book character.  In a streamlining move Kyne's executives are reduced to three (Lamin having been written out of the film), one of whom is played by George Sanders, who seems rather listless here, though Thomas Mitchell, as the voluble Jon Day Griffith, provides some journalistic gusto.

Dana Andrews plays the key role of Ed Mobley and he is good in the role (you might be reminded of Edward R. Murrow), but he was more than ten years older than the book character and he is made a Pulitzer prize winner and a television commentator to boot, which lends this character a stature he simply didn't have in the book, as respected as he was for his reporting skills.

Sometimes You want to go where everybody knows your name:
Andrews, Forrest, Mitchell, Lupino
up to no good
Lupino and Sanders drink and scheme

Conversely Nancy Liggett is played in Fifties ingenue fashion by Sally Forrest (in her penultimate film performance). Forrest was twenty years younger than Andrews and in this film seemingly was instructed by Fritz Lang to ask herself "What would Doris (Day) do?"  In other words, for me she's too prim and perky for the character portrayed by Einstein in the book (who, for example, pronounces unblushingly that she likes her men to be sexually experienced). 

On the other hand, the role of seductress Mildred Donner fits Ida Lupino like a fine glove, and Rhonda Fleming makes a bold and brassy impression as Kyne's unfaithful wife, Dorothy.  I should mention the reliable Howard Duff appears as Andrew's helpful cop friend--Just how many film cops did Duff play in the Fifties, anyway?

"They'd sell out their own mothers!"  

Certainly While the City Sleeps is well worth watching--but I say read the book first! Charles Einstein knew his stuff when it came to big city journalism, and in the Fifties paperback original medium he found a forum to express it. Don't let the surface pulp trappings of the lurid paperback covers dissuade you, this is one sophisticated and smart novel, one from which I couldn't resist, as you will have seen, quoting extensively at the beginning of this piece. 

Happily the novel is available in a modern edition, both in paper and eBook versions.  In closing I'll leave you with the wise words of Anthony Boucher, taken from his contemporary review of The Bloody Spur:'s an unusually long but tightly knit suspense novel, with an ambitious and well-handled problem in construction....the detailed examination of the sexual and professional lives of a group of highly talented heels is objectively fascinating, and the obsessed murder is as believable as the protagonist of a Notable Trial.


  1. A superb essay -- many thanks! So depressing that the cops thought that beating the shit out of their captives served justice rather than serving to undermine US democracy.

    1. Yes, I agree, and it's something Einstein portrays in the book as well, I should have mentioned. Glad you enjoyed the piece! It's definitely noirish stuff!

  2. Well done Curtis - really fascinating to hear about the real-life background and the book certainly feels much more expansive than the movie. Lang's later films, usually made on smaller budgets, can take some adjustment in the viewer. he gets right to the heart of the matter but a lot of surface detail and gloss is stripped away, which can make them feel a bit too 'on the nose' but there is a fair amount of subtlety on display too.

    1. Yes, I'm afraid I kept comparing the film to the book, having just read the book before watching the film. I probably would have liked the film more had I not been making the direct comparison. Got some more Fritz Lang coming up, by the way!

      Also I added to the text the point about the omitted killing in the film, another example of the film making changes. But I suppose that was to be expected in this case.

    2. One thing I should add, a lot of people seem to compare the Dana Andrews characters to the killer in terms of how he treats the Sally Forrest character, but I don't know. A lot of their relationship seems to fall into the standard cinematic "cute couple bickering" to me.

      The script employs the device of the "hero" using his girlfriend as bait to catch the killer, which does not happen in the book, but part of that is simply a cinematic device to heighten tension and give the nominal leading lady more scope.

      In fact the film brings Andrews, Forrest and Rhonda Fleming all into the film at the climax with the killer in rather an unlikely way which does not happen in the book, but which does serve to being these characters into the action, making more of a connection between the press and the killer story lines. Some people complain that there is not enough "action" with the killer in the film, that the film is a dull talkfest, but the film actually does more of an effort than the book to connect the killer with the press characters.